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Career planning in the age of uncertainty

Traditional career ladders are harder to find, but that just means new opportunities to create your own leadership path and success story.

5 min read


A person ascending a ladder into the sky


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Another extraordinary year recently came to a close – and by all indications, we may be in for another one.

Continued COVID-19 concerns. Supply chain woes. Shallow labor pools for deep talent needs. Disruptive technology. Unusual climate events. Geopolitical concerns. It all points to another year (or perhaps future) in which uncertainty is the only certain thing we can count on.

While many employees have joined the Great Resignation, others have stayed, waiting for the turbulence to pass, the confusion to clear and predictability to return. But even the most steady and steadfast among us are coming to the conclusion that it’s time to take a clear-eyed look at what “career” means in today’s wacky workplace — and how to move forward to create the experience of growth, engagement and satisfaction they desire despite the uncertainty.

Career outcomes used to be clear and defined. We created plans that led to new titles, positions, moves and promotions. But in today’s more volatile and less hierarchical organizations, this may not be as certain as it once was.

(And let’s be honest: Those steps up are looking less desirable to many. Climbing today’s corporate ladder comes with a lot more challenges, stress, hours and risk — frequently without the compensation that compensates for it.)

That’s why many ambitious (and befuddled) professionals are asking: Without the traditional outcomes — a targeted next role, prescribed pathways or promotion — what does career development look like today? When conditions change before the ink is even dry, how can we make plans for a relevant and meaningful career?

“Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.”

~ Joanna Macy, “The Greatest Danger”

The answer may rest upon something less tangible — but more powerful — than the traditional ‘outcome’ or trappings of career development: our intentions, motivations and vision for our work. So, as you begin your 2022 planning, consider these three intentions that will help you use the uncertainty to thrive.

1. Find ways to add value

The challenges and sheer complexity facing most organizations right now create an environment in which opportunities to add value are ubiquitous. And the simple intention to do so can trigger a range of developmental and career-supporting outcomes.

You’ll enhance your strategic mindset as you learn to discern where and how to add value. You’ll gain a keener understanding of the organization’s priorities and customer needs. You’ll discover the levers that address problems, streamline processes and enhance satisfaction. You’ll likely expand your network. And you’ll distinguish yourself, building a reputation as a difference-maker while likely experiencing greater meaning in your work.

2. Double down on human skills

With so much talk about digital transformation, automation and artificial intelligence, it’s easy to be lulled into believing that future-proofing one’s career means tying oneself to technology. And while that’s the answer for some, for others the key is to focus on what differentiates us from machines — and that’s human skills.

Communication, empathy, collaborating, teambuilding, influencing — these are just a few of the high-impact skills that will be necessary and valued no matter what the future brings. And setting the intention to invest in developing them today will create opportunities tomorrow.

3. Focus on what you want to do versus what you want to be

There are no guarantees in organizations today — and let’s face it, there haven’t been for some time. You can check all the right boxes and do all the right things, yet that next big break or promotion may still not come along. As Macy’s quote highlights, we can’t count on the outcomes.

So, instead of focusing on what you want to be — the role, title or position — turn your attention toward what you want to do. What job can your job do for you rather than the other way around?

Maybe you want to better align work with your values. Or build your network and feel more connected. Or test your capacity with next-level challenges. Or take on greater responsibility. Or build your confidence. You don’t have to wait to assume another role to make these things happen. You just need to set the intention to discover and take action on what you really want to do — then watch the growth and opportunities that follow.

Uncertainty is synonymous with today’s business environment. But clear intentions can offer the sense of a grounded stability we need despite swirling conditions and unpredictable outcomes.

How will you develop your career in 2022? What’s your intention?


Want more insights about career development in this age of uncertainty? Download this sample chapter from her new book, “Promotions Are So Yesterday: Redefine Career Development – Help Employees Thrive,” scheduled for release March 8, 2022, by ATD Press.

Julie Winkle Giulioni is a champion of growth and development in the workplace, helping leaders and organizations optimize the potential of their people. Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, she’s the co-author of the international bestseller “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want” and a forthcoming book, “Promotions Are So Yesterday,” published by ATD Press. Learn more about her work at

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